Gary Waddington reflects on the Shared Conversations
At General Synod in York, back in July, two days – from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday morning – were given over to Shared Conversations. The Shared Conversations are about engaging people from a diversity of theological backgrounds in a common attempt to consider how the Church of England might respond to the issues surrounding human sexuality in a culturally changing society. In what follows, I’m attempting not only to give something of a “flavour” of what happened; but also to try to dig a little deeper and tease out some themes that struck me during this process.
The Shared Conversations were a mix of group-work and plenary sessions. Each member of Synod was assigned a “parent” group of around twenty people, plus a facilitator. For some of that time we worked together in sub-sets of three or six people. The group work reflected on where we were each “coming from”, and on what we had heard in the plenary sessions. They were as much “get to know you” sessions as anything else.
The whole-Synod plenary sessions were essentially panel-based conversations. We heard from panels of biblical scholars; from non-heterosexual young people; from a range of older clergy and lay people who brought their own sexual identities and perspectives; and from a group of clergy reflecting on the human sexuality debate across the wider Anglican Communion.
We all came with a whole range of expectations to the start of the process. For many, and for me, there was a certain sense of dread. How uncomfortable would this all be? Was there a hidden agenda? Would there be a massive punch-up? Would we be duped into making decisions? Would this all be “one-way” traffic? Would it all just be a massive waste of time and money? Would it be all talk; just a load of hot air?
My reflection is that much of that sense of dread dissipated pretty quickly. That’s not to say this was at all easy – it wasn’t. There were certainly times when it was tough going. Some people laughed, and others cried. Some of what we heard was what we’ve always heard, and was fearsomely unsurprising. Other material was surprising, thought-provoking, informative, and challenging. Some parts were easy to listen to, and others were very difficult indeed.
If the Shared Conversations were nothing more than an attempt to get people with differing views to listen to – rather than shout at – each other, then I think the time was well spent. Clearly a great number had a real will to explore ways of dealing with contentious subjects that elevate our discourse and understanding, rather than diminishing it. That some very conservative evangelicals didn’t boycott the talks, but participated, should be applauded.
These were not, however, conversations in which we dealt with the issues at hand directly. For those who thought this might just be a “here are the questions and here are my answers” session, there will have been some disappointment and frustration. For me and for many, I think, the value will lie not in what we have just done – but further down the road. There are, however, some serious questions that arise – as much from what was not said, as from what was.
When is a sex debate not a sex debate?
More than once, it was clear that Synod holds “proxy” debates. So, for example, an earlier discussion about legislative reform was clearly just as much a debate on “can we trust Bishops?” For much of the wider world, the Shared Conversations might have appeared to be a discussion about “homosexuality”. But this was just as much a proxy debate.
Yes, human sexuality was indeed the catalyst – but it certainly felt at times that what was being debated were some very big issues that haven’t been satisfactorily dealt with before. That may sound like a weird paradox. If the Church is obsessed with sex, you’d think we’d have a grammar, a hermeneutic, a doctrine or two, a common theological reference point. You might even think that we’d talk about sex – a lot. That, I think, is a much bigger problem – there’s a lot of restating of slogans (by which I mean theologically or biblically loaded “code phrases”) which singularly failed to be “unpacked”, challenged, thought through, and nailed down.
Questions about theological anthropology and ‘personhood’, ethics and moral theology, ecumenical implications, sacramental understandings, theologies of justice and more were, if mentioned at all, skated over. What was striking was – in a debate about human sexuality – how little we talked about human sexuality. Non-heterosexual people seemed to be the ‘elephant in the room’, which often meant that their contributions were powerful for the fact that the debate opened up, more so than some other of the content.
Further still, “homosexuality” is, and I think ought to be seen as, shorthand for a discomfort with sex as a whole. After all, sex is dirty, isn’t it? As such, then, gay sex is really dirty sex. That is, I think, a cop-out. There’s clearly as much of a problem with heterosexual sex outside marriage; with divorce and remarriage; with contraception; and so on. That’s all by way of saying that we spend a lot of time talking about sex, but not actually talking about sex. It’s all very English, really.
Haven’t we been here before?
In short, yes. For almost all of my adult life the Church of England has been debating the ordination of women: first as deacons, then as priests, then as bishops. That’s well over thirty years; and it has been like watching an enormous Anglo-Catholic car crash. It has at times consumed us; sapped our energies; and often regrettably relegated our sense of mission to a very low item on the agenda. Over all those years it was a debate which occasionally had real theological enterprise and often was a vicious exercise in name-calling – from all sides. Despite all of that, however, we’ve arrived at a point of some degree of permanent settlement. How long that will last is a good question.
I say this because of all the “wings” of the Church of England, it was the Catholic wing that found itself at the epicentre of that debate. The present debate doesn’t feel like another Anglo-Catholic car crash; for our corner of the church doesn’t seem to be where the spotlight is. It genuinely doesn’t seem to be the place where the voices are raised, at present.
Perhaps that’s at least in part what the Shared Conversations are about – trying to stop a car crash in a different part of the Church of England, to ameliorate the same being replicated across the wider Anglican world. It may be that we’re learning some lessons. It could just be that we’re trying to change the tone of the debate – or rather to set far clearer parameters for our internal discourse before the next round of decision-making takes place.
I fully realize that this debate has been ongoing for quite some time. But – and it is a big but – while Issues in Human Sexuality, the Higton debate of 1987, and indeed the last two Lambeth Conferences (and the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson) have all turned up the volume at times, this debate has been held back because of the ordination debate in England. Now that’s out of the way, the Human Sexuality debate can’t be put off any longer. It’s an argument whose time has come – and it certainly isn’t going to go away now.
To be continued.